It was another early morning, and we drove out of Matsumoto towards Nagano. As we got farther from the city center, we were able to see that Matsumoto lies in a basin — surrounded by mountain ranges on all sides. Green mountains with patches of reds and oranges near the lip of the basin, snow capped mountains farther on.
We arrive at at the Zenko-ji Temple, where we were met with Mr. Mikinori Komatsu, a representative of the Nagano Prefectural Government. Along with our tour guide Yoshi, he took us around the temple grounds and answered our many questions.
Zenko-ji is a Buddhist temple, and houses a buddhist statue that is only taken once every six years. You can go up and enter the temple without having to take off your shoes. There is, however, a section where you do need to take them off. There is also a statue of one of Buddha’s followers, which a lot of people are touching. It’s said that if you are not feeling well, you rub the area where you are feeling pain on the statue to help you heal.
From Nagano, we headed out to Obuse, a small town that is said to be the next big thing in the Chubu region. This pretty little town is exactly that: it’s so quaint and pretty. It was a pity that we didn’t have enough time to really wander around, but we found a small garden that is filled with autumn colors that we found while following a path made with wood from the chestnut tree. The colors in the garden was so pretty, people can’t resist having their pictures taken. The biggest hit in Obuse among our group though, was the handful of souvenir shops by the side of the road.
There were different products being sold, from apples to cooked insects, but the highlight for me was the ice cream. It may be too cold for ice cream, but that did not stop us from trying out some chestnut flavored ice cream. I paired mine with some miso ice cream, and it was absolutely yummy. I had to hurry back to our warm bus after that.
For lunch, we stopped by the Obuse Highway Oasis, a rest stop along the expressway where you can have a bite to eat, use the facilities, and buy souvenirs. If you need to stretch your legs, there is also a sprawling lawn around it, so you can walk around before going back into your cramped car. We had our lunch there, a marron or chestnut rice bento. It was a very interesting lunch, consisting mainly of vegetables, and a flavorful rice mixed with chestnuts.
We continued on with our journey after lunch, stopping by the Dai-o Wasabi Farm in Azumino on the way back to Matsumoto. It is a huge farm, sprawling over several hectares of land, located strategically at the base of a mountain to have fresh spring water that nourishes the wasabi plant. It was interesting to see the plantation, as it does not use any soil — just rocks to hold the plants in place, and running spring water.
The farm, like most attractions we’ve been to, features a souvenir shop, as well as a snack bar, where you can buy wasabi-laced foods. Wasabi hotdogs, wasabi ice cream, cheese with wasabi, you name it, they got it. You can also buy fresh wasabi — just peel the other skin and grate. The fresh wasabi gives you that strong hit inside your mouth, but does not leave any aftertaste. We were told that wasabi isn’t really hot or spicy, but when mixed with some sugar, that’s when you’ll get the heat.
We reached Matsumoto Castle just as the grey clouds grew darker. The first drops of rain fell as we disembarked from the bus. Armed with see-through umbrellas, we walked towards Matsumoto Castle holding on tightly and angling it to shield us from the wind.
As we reached the castle entrance, we were given plastic bags for our dripping umbrellas and our shoes. Carrying our load with us, we clambered over the entrance steps that can challenge even the tallest person in our group. That was just the beginning. While the other stairs inside the castle seemed of regular size, it became narrower and steeper the higher we climbed.
We finally reached the top, and was treated to a sweeping view of the surrounding land. The castle is a place for battle, and exhibited inside were different kinds of guns, weapons, and armors. What we thought were windows were actually for propping up guns to shoot at the enemy. There goes every romantic notion we had about castles.
From the castle gates, we walked around the block to the Matsumoto Catholic Church. It’s a small building, plain, save for some stained glass up front. Not surprisingly, we saw a small Philippine flag inside, and some newsletter for the Filipino members of the parish.
Our tour for the day ended at 5 o’clock, and it was already very dark outside. We headed out for dinner at a shabu-shabu restaurant a couple of blocks from our hotel (the Matsumoto Tokyu Inn). Shabu-shabu with unlimited pork, chicken, and veggies was definitely the best way to end a long and rainy day. That and a a couple of hour’s free time shopping at the nearby department store.
[Edited on December 1, 2013 to add the bit about the Wasabi Farm]